Leaving Your Footprint

Photo Courtesy of Elliot Moore

Photo Courtesy of Elliot Moore

When many writers hear the word "branding," their throats tighten, and their palms begin to sweat. "Branding" is jargon, and it has become quasi-synonymous with "that marketing crap we wish we didn't have to do." Many writers don't feel comfortable marketing anything--let alone themselves--so the thought of packaging their identity as a commodity and hitting the streets with a billboard that says "Buy My Books" is enough to induce a panic attack.

Here's the great news: this is not what branding is. A better way to look at the word is to realize all it means is knowing yourself as a writer and deciding what kind of footprint you would like to leave on the world.

Here are the obvious questions you have probably already asked yourself:

  • What do you like to read?
  • What do you like to write?
  • Typically, how old are your characters?
  • How long are your books?
  • Is there a specific genre where your work usually falls?

Here are some slightly less-obvious questions:

  • Do you consider your work literary or commercial?
  • Are your stories mostly serious or light-hearted?
  • What are your thoughts on violence? On cursing? On sex scenes?
  • Do you prefer stand-alone novels or series?
  • Are your stories character-driven or action-driven?
  • Are there any specific, reoccurring themes?

This is where most people tend to get frustrated, because they don't want to feel "boxed in" by specific genres and categories. They also tend to feel a little overwhelmed by so many cut-and-dry questions--particularly when they are just getting started. How can you possibly know who you are as a writer when you are just beginning your very first book?

Here is the most important thing I want to tell you: don't stress about your author brand while you are writing your first novel. It usually won't present itself until you are midway through your second or third book.

Take my experience for example: 

  • My first (shelved) novel, The Mermaid Gene, is a Young Adult Paranormal Mystery about beluga whales, poachers and mermaids. It is set in Alaska, and it features an aspiring marine biologist, a set of dreamy twin deckhands, and a PG-rated love story.
  • My second novel, Essence, is a Young Adult Near-Future Thriller about cults, adrenaline junkies, greed and corruption. It is set in Yosemite National Park, and it features a sheltered cult defector, slack lining, rock climbing and a much more PG-13-rated love story.

Some of the similarities between the novels are obvious: both fall into the Young Adult genre, and both feature love stories set in wild and scenic natural areas. Both have a component of mystery, and both feature young women "finding themselves" by overcoming scary obstacles.

There are other similarities as well. Both stories are written in first-person, past-tense, and both take place in a fairly short amount of time: over the course of a summer. Both feature protagonists who doubt themselves and adults who can't be trusted, and both have high-action conclusions, where the novel's outcome isn't (hopefully) apparent until just a few pages before the ending.

Writing these novels has also taught me a few important lessons about my strengths and weaknesses:

  • I hate writing about magic and things that "aren't real." I struggled so much with the mermaid reveal scene in The Mermaid Gene that I ended up coming up with a ridiculously complicated "alternative evolution theory" that explained the biological reasons why being a mermaid actually made sense. I also came up with this whole story about how European mer-ancestors followed the lines of human expansion by trailing sailing ships. This is why most Alaskan mermaids didn't look like Alaskan natives.
  • I am too lazy to write science fiction. I am generally science-minded, so I expected myself to jump at the chance to dive into this genre. However, I quickly learned that I don't have the patience to research the plausibility of most of the technology. Since I can't handle writing about things that "aren't real," I never felt confident making up the difference with my imagination.
  • World-building doesn't really interest me. Essence is set in the near-future, so I had to do a little bit of world-building to explain what was different about this new place. This included writing a new earthquake into San Francisco's history and creating the framework for a cult to rise in its wake. I really struggled with this process, because I was so excited to dive into my characters' stories that it was a challenge to spend time fleshing out these (very important) details. 
  • "Sense of place" really DOES interest me. So far, both of my novels have taken place in settings I know well, and it has been very important to me to get those places "right." That means I rely heavily on sensory details: how things look, sound, smell, feel and taste. (So far, my readers have really appreciated this, and many have even said my settings are so vibrant they are almost a character themselves. *Happy Face*)
  • I am good at creating complex characters. I have always loved observing people and trying to figure out why they do the things they do. I think I am able to channel this in such a way that even when you don't like some of my characters, you understand why they make their choices. (My readers have also given me pretty consistent feedback that this is one of my strengths, and I'm absolutely thrilled by this.)
  • I am also good at writing dialogue. I began writing dialogue in my middle school diaries, because I didn't want to forget the exact words people used when they spoke with me. This skill has apparently carried over into my novels, because I am often told my dialogue is believable and authentic.
  • I like character-driven novels. Like, a lot. I always scratched my head over my favorite novels--Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cannery Row--and then it hit me. All three were character studies, and all three featured a well-rounded cast of unique personalities that were thrown together and made to interact with each other. I realized this was my favorite part of my own novels, too. Even my more action-oriented scenes were written with an internal stream of consciousness that focused more on what the characters were feeling than on what was actually happening to them.
  • People dig me when I am vulnerable. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I sometimes talk about personal stuff like my travels, my car accident, my divorce, my fears and my insecurities. What you may not know is that I have been floored by how many of you have taken the time to reach out and offer words of encouragement whenever I have written one of these posts. This has shown me that people like the "real" me, not the bad-ass, independent adventurer I may sometimes feel I should pretend to be.
  • People also dig my characters when they are vulnerable. My first protagonist, Kai Murphy, was super likable yet not always accessible. My second protagonist, Autumn Grace, was super accessible yet not always likable. I have learned there needs to be a very specific balance between these two qualities, and I intend for my next protagonist to more fully encompass both traits. I also intend to push her vulnerabilities to the next level, because I can channel my lessons from taking risks and exposing my own soul to the world.
  • Authenticity and self-confidence are kinda my jams. I have spent most of my life trying to craft who I am around who I think I am supposed to be, and it is only recently that I have begun to fully embrace my authentic self. I feel like this lesson is so important--especially for young girls--so my desire is to inspire them to always be true to themselves and to never settle for anything less than their absolute best.

What about you? What sorts of issues keep you awake at night, and what makes your heart race when you think about including it in your stories?

I encourage you to spend some time dwelling on these questions. I would also like you to ask yourself what three words you would like people to use when they describe your style. I have chosen "Passionate," "Brave" and "Genuine" for mine, and I use these three words to guide me whenever I make a decision--whether it's in my personal life, when I'm brainstorming a new story idea or when I'm trying to pick a design for my website.

After all, the only thing that makes our writing unique is the specific footprint we choose to leave on the world. The better we know ourselves, the bigger that footprint can be.

P.S.- It's only one month until the one-year anniversary of Essence's debut! To celebrate, I will be resharing my nine-part "Path to Publication" series every Wednesday and Friday this month. I also plan to host an anniversary giveaway soon; please stay tuned for more details!